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Schlepping past Watergate


I haven’t blogged much lately. There are plenty of ‘good’ reasons for a partial hiatus. I’ve been revising a book, doing research related to a grant, and trying to finish a few (overdue) papers that I owe other people. But the truth is that other factors explain my silence. The most important one is a sense of creeping despair.

Scott already posted about the imminent atrocities. Trump has granted our dishonest, unethical Attorney General unlimited authority to declassify – and make public – whatever intelligence will serve the president’s interests. It’s absolutely no secret that the exercise is entirely political.

Conservative lawmakers, such as Meadows, have insisted to friends in the administration that declassifying these documents will help Trump protect his presidency and further distance himself from any political fallout from the Russia investigation, according to multiple people involved in those discussions.

This development should not really surprise anyone. It was only a matter of time before Trump found people willing to act on even more of his demagogic and authoritarian dispositions. Make no mistake, Trump would love to comprehensively purge law enforcement of those who, like James Comey, refuse to swear their fealty. I can’t say for sure if he’d ‘love’ to mount show trials of his political opponents, but it seems clear that he’s willing to do almost anything to prevent full scrutiny of his financial dealings. His rhetoric speaks for itself.

Of course, Trump does not need to frogmarch his opponents to succeed. He merely needs to smear them.

We can be pretty sure of what’s going to happen. Barr will scour every record he can to learn as much as possible about the Russia investigation. Whenever he comes across something that can be spun to make the FBI or anyone Trump has decided is his enemy look bad, he’ll put it in the “Declassify” pile. Then he’ll release it all to the public and hold a news conference where he suggests that there was a conspiracy to take down Trump. The president will then take to Twitter to proclaim that he was indeed the victim of a vile witch hunt that has at last been exposed. The news media, in possession of only the materials Barr has chosen to give them, will struggle to avoid amplifying and reinforcing Barr’s claims.

In case you were wondering what happens when an infinitely corrupt president decides to use the powers of the federal government for his own self-interest with the help of lackeys he has installed to protect him, this is it. Now just wait until he tells Barr to go after the Democratic nominee for president.

Many of the people in my circle – especially those with knowledge of how kleptocratic and hybrid regimes work – have been sounding the alarm since November of 2016. Over and over again.

But, of course, the sky does not fall with each of the steps taken by Trump. When his administration puts thousands of migrant children into concentration camps, nothing changes for the vast majority of Americans. When Trump stonewalls legitimate investigation, or seizes on emergency powers to circumvent the express will of the legislative branch, the United States does not suddenly become Pinochet’s Chile or Mussolini’s Italy.

(Indeed, the United States probably never will look like such regimes. The country has experience with localized authoritarianism and national semi-authoritarianism, so it’s not like we lack readily available models.)

The lack of any climactic moment in America’s schlepp along the road of democratic erosion is, as I’ve argued before, part of the problem. It’s kind of tedious and boring for the vast majority of Americans – certainly for those who don’t belong to a vulnerable group. It’s the same thing over and over again. Which, by the way, means writing the same columns and blogposts over and over again. And I don’t get paid to try to say something incisive about each scene, whether international or domestic, in our current political horror show.

The other problem is that there’s no happy ending. Even if the Democrats win in 2020 (which is less likely than not), the transition may well be ugly. We may well see some political violence. With a normal midterm election in 2022 and a Democrat in the White House, the Senate could be Republican for a generation. One way or another, gridlock will likely incline even well-meaning presidents to expand executive power, which is already past the point of imperial presidency.

Sure, we can impeach Trump, but he won’t be convicted. So there’s no way to crush Trumpism through exposure to the weight of evidence; that possibility is already pretty shot by the current media landscape, anyway. Heck, even conviction might do little to halt current trends. People thought Watergate led to legal and normative safeguards against abuse of executive power. That sure worked out.

Which leads us to where we are: dependent on Republicans to decide that holding on to political power isn’t worth Trump’s effects on their party and the country. Good luck with that.

So, yeah, the left and center-left need to get used to constant political mobilization. Yeah, the House should begin impeachment hearings; if they don’t, they’ll be completely unable to compete when Barr steps up the disinformation. Because there really are no not-bad options.

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